The other day I took a funeral for Arthur– one of our WWII vets. He was a sweet, faithful and good Catholic gentleman and a decorated WWII pilot.
At the graveside a couple of Marines were present in their dress uniforms for the flag ceremony. They stood tall with shoes shined and hat brims low. After the Catholic ceremony one soldier stood at attention while the other bugled “Taps”. Then he stepped forward, smart and correct. They took the flag and folded it into the famous triangle and handed it to the widow with the set formula of words. It was a powerful and moving ceremony.
I thought afterwards how happy most people are to have the soldiers there in their dress uniform. They are drilled and correct and their personalities are subsumed by the ceremony they offer. Nobody has a problem.
Why then do so many people make a fuss over a Catholic priest wearing the correct uniform, mastering the ceremony and delivering the ritual at Mass. So I hear dull utilitarians say, “Why does that priest have to wear all those fancy clothes? Doesn’t he know Jesus was a carpenter?” I’ve heard some complain about the way I celebrate the liturgy, “Why does he stand so tall all the time? He’s so arrogant.” or “Why doesn’t he be more personal? He makes the Mass so, so, so formal and correct. Yuucch.” Really.
What if those comments were to be transferred to the Marines doing the flag ceremony? “Look at that guy over there with his blue jacket and pressed pants. I mean, that’s really crazy. That kind of uniform is so impractical! Who can go out and fight dressed like that?” What if people were to say, “What’s with all the solemn faces and that music on the bugle? That’s so old fashioned and nobody can relate to that!” What if they were to say, “Why do they have to stand at attention like that and have their shoes so shiny? Who do they think they are better than us?”
You get my point. This is why when people criticize the Catholic liturgy, vestments, ritual or ceremony they only reveal how little they know about the beautiful, mystifying and moving ceremonies of life. People not only love ritual and ceremony. They need it. Some part of us communicates deeply through the language, gestures and ritual of liturgy. There is a secret place in the human heart that longs to worship, and beauty is the language of worship.
Take that away and we are an impoverished people. Take that away and we have no vision. Take that away and something dies within us. A part of us that is deeply human–that loves all the deep down things that are not useful or efficient or economical–that part of us dies and we are once again subsumed into that great machine of utilitarianism–the part of society that treats everything as a financial figure and everyone as a worker drone in a vast colony of ants.
Give me the pomp and ceremony for it is in the ridiculously uselessness of it that there is something stranger and deeper that I need.